Horse simulation device used as treatment for autistic children

After receiving a $600,000 grant in 2020, an interdisciplinary team of researchers is studying the effectiveness of equine stimulators in treating autism in children. Photo courtesy of Brian Garner

By Audrey Patterson | Journalist

An interdisciplinary team of researchers and engineers received a $600,000 grant in 2020 from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to study the effectiveness of a mechanical horse simulator as a treatment for children with autism.

This team included Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Dr. Brian Garner, Clinical Professor of Educational Psychology Dr. Julie Ivey, Jonathan Rylander, Paul Fillmore and Beth Lanning.

Equine therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on improving movement by using the movement of the horse’s gait to improve hip stability. However, seasonal, physical and economic barriers can limit equine therapy for children; this prompted Garner to invent the MiraColt, a device that mimics the rhythm and movements of horseback riding.

“One of my prayers since I was little is for the Lord to develop and cultivate the talents and abilities He has given me to be a blessing to others to glorify Him,” Garner said. “I really see this mechanical horse as the accomplishment of that.”

Since receiving the grant, Ivey said the team has gotten the study going and is still accepting participants.

Participants are involved in a 12-week study and must be between the ages of 6 and 12, be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), have motor impairments related to ASD, follow verbal instructions, and have an IQ below 80 .

“If we had them younger than that, they probably couldn’t do what we asked them to do; they can’t sit on horses,” Ivey said. “We make them do activities while they’re riding to help their brain activity. We have puzzles and soccer balls in a basket. So they do a lot of activities that include speech and motor skills while they ride. And if they’re too young, they couldn’t do some of these activities.

Ivey said her role in the project, along with her graduate students, is recruitment, outreach and behavioral assessments.

“We are responsible for doing the behavioral assessment before, in the middle, and at the end of the project to see if you can see if the treatment was effective,” Ivey said. “We’re looking for improvement in a lot of the behavioral things associated with autism.”

Ivey said in the study that they hope to see children improve their language, balance, motor coordination, attention and social interactions that children with autism tend to struggle with.

Garner said he hopes it can transform the lives of many people. In one case, a family installed a MiraColt in their home for a young man with cerebral palsy.

“I mean, a 26-year-old can go to the bathroom on his own for the first time,” Garner said. “So simple things that we tend to take for granted are challenges for a person with a disability. If we are able to help people like this overcome and improve in these areas, it has a substantial positive impact on their quality of life.

Ivey said the simulator mimics the movement of a horse, and for children with autism, it can be soothing.

“Children with autism have sensory issues or have trouble knowing where they are in space and being centered,” Ivey said. “And so, riding that horse, they feel grounded. It’s soothing, and it’s just something they like to do. If you think about it, when kids go to a carnival, they can take a ride because it’s fun. It’s the same thing.”

Garner said he didn’t want the MiraColt to stay in the lab as just a fun project. Now his dream is coming true.

“We’ve had units sold as far away as Australia and Qatar and a number of different locations across the country,” Garner said. “We are getting very interesting and exciting stories and testimonials about its benefits. And so it’s really exciting. You know, you think back to all those years and the hard work in the lab. Often I ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this? Why bother with that? And you know, that’s the reason, because now we can impact people’s lives. It’s worth it.

As their study has not been completed, there are no concrete results yet. Still, Ivey said, “some preliminary results or themes we’re seeing have been reduced hyperactivity and anxiety, improved gross motor skills, improved expressive language, and improved some emotional responses.”

“I’m very lucky to have a wonderful team,” Garner said. “I must also say that from the beginning, this whole project, I look back, and there is no doubt in my mind that this whole effort was a gift from the Lord. And I’m not just talking about autism research. I mean the idea of ​​the mechanical horse and all its development and all its stages. All in all, I thank the Lord for giving us this technology, Baylor and the exciting things we see in this app.

For more information or if you are interested in participating in the study, contact Ivey at [email protected] or 254-710-7564.

About Antoine L. Cassell

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